Conscientious Objection Loses Ground

Country: France

Date of incident: May 24, 2012

Medical Student, Carolin, 24: “I had to do an internship in a gynecology department, and I can tell you that when there is only one nurse for the whole department, you better forget about your conscientious objection.”

The French law says: “A doctor is never required to perform an abortion (...). No midwife, nurse or physician assistant, whoever he is, can be forced to participate in an abortion."

But the reality is different: the organization of the hospitals, the lack of staff, the schedules of the surgery departments and the pressure on the medical staff make a refusal on the grounds of freedom of conscience difficult. Ann, a 25-year-old medical student says: “Contrary to what the law requires from us, the doctor generally grants the request of a patient in distress, without taking the time of explaining or offering alternatives, because it is a taboo subject and he does not want to feel looked down upon by the rest of the team.” A medical student cannot - in theory - be compelled to participate in an abortion (Paragraphes 1 et 2 de l’article 2212-8 du Code de santé publique), but the reality is quite different. Jean, 22, told the Observatory: “Nowadays, it’s almost impossible to graduate without doing an abortion”. And Amanda adds: “The road to become a gynecologist as a Christian is a real obstacle course.” The problem is particularly striking when it comes to students wishing to become obstetrical-gynecologists. Paul states: “For me and my Catholic friends, as medical students, the question of our consciences holds us back tremendously. Those of us who are drawn to gynecology in the end decide to go for other areas of medicine because becoming a Christian gynecologist is a real minefield. It feels as if one can be expelled at any time or be forced to do an abortion.” A regrettable particularity of the French law is that the conscientious objection for pharmacists is merely inexistent. Pharmacists are compelled to stock and sell the so-called “morning-after” or abortion pill (Cour de Cassation, Chambre criminelle, du 21 octobre 1998, 97-80.981, Publié au bulletin).

Moreover, in France, in case of ‘passive euthanasia’ (i.e. a voluntary interruption of treatment), the physician has the right to be replaced by another doctor (Code de la santé publique Article L1111-4, 3ème alinéa) but nothing in the law mentions the case of the other medical professionals, including nurses who often find themselves in very difficult situations. Conscientious objection is denied to pharmacists. For doctors and medical students, it is effectively inapplicable. And the prospects are not rosy: The very principle of conscientious objection is at risk. Eva Joly, French member of the European Parliament, recently said: "I am absolutely for France to abolish the clause of conscientious objection for doctors." Names where changed to respect their anonymity, sources known to the Observatory.


Personal witnesses known to Observatory. MEP Eva Joly in interview: Conscientious Objection in the French law: Article L2212-8 du Code de la santé publique, original text in French: "Un médecin n'est jamais tenu de pratiquer une interruption volontaire de grossesse (...). Aucune sage-femme, aucun infirmier ou infirmière, aucun auxiliaire médical, quel qu'il soit, n'est tenu de concourir à une interruption de grossesse."